Was President Obama better for Russia than President Trump?

Was President Obama better for Russia than President Trump?
© Greg Nash

Now that opponents of President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussia's election interference is a problem for the GOP Pence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Iran oil minister: US made 'bad mistake' in ending sanctions waivers MORE have seen their impeachment hopes slip away, it is time to examine the most prominent assumption that animated those who suspected Trump of collusion with Russia, which is that Vladimir Putin preferred Trump to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump rips Krugman, NYT after columnist writes GOP no longer believes in American values Klobuchar jokes to Cuomo: 'I feel you creeping over my shoulder' but 'not in a Trumpian manner' Dems seek to rein in calls for impeachment MORE in the 2016 election. There is nothing in the record of American relations with Russia under President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to suggest any reason for Putin to prefer Trump. He certainly had no reason to fear Clinton.

It was Clinton, and no representative of Trump, who had traveled to Moscow with a “reset button” at the start of the Obama administration in 2009. This was the same administration that withdrew promised missile defense systems from Poland and the Czech Republic, and announced it on the 70th anniversary of the German Soviet Nonaggression Pact.

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The Obama administration, not the Trump campaign, had invited the Russians back to the Middle East in an armed capacity, giving Moscow a role in that vitally important region that seven previous administrations, Democratic and Republican, had sought to deny. It was the Obama administration that reacted weakly to Russia infringing on Ukraine, an American ally slated for NATO membership with little protest.

It was Obama, not Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTrump claims Mueller didn't speak to those 'closest' to him It is wrong to say 'no collusion' The Hill's Morning Report - Is impeachment back on the table? MORE, who told the stand in president for Putin, “After my election, I have more flexibility.” A clearer expression of a desire to collude with the Russians to win an election would be difficult to find. If we believe our intelligence community that there was Russian meddling in 2016, we can say that it was Obama who allowed it.

All of these policies, each of which favored Moscow, pale in comparison to the boost Obama gave to the Russian oil industry, which is the true source of power for Putin. By placing impediments to domestic American oil production, Obama played no small part in making Russia a great power once again, while being governed by someone wholly opposed to American interests in virtually every part of the world. At the same time, Obama era policies strengthened two Russian allies opposed to the United States. These are the leaders of Iran and the dictator of Syria.

If Clinton were opposed to any of this, she kept her opposition a closely guarded secret, not even revealing any opposition on her all too public private email server. Contrast the image of a Trump who favors Putin with his actions since taking the oath of office. Among his early actions was to reverse the betrayal of Poland under Obama and to deploy missiles, over the strenuous objections of the Russians. Earlier, Trump approved direct military action against Russian “contractors” in Syria who were attacking an American position. At least 200 Russian soldiers were killed.

Although Trump could not reverse the Obama era Russian seizure of the Crimean peninsula, Trump did deploy military forces to the Baltic states, which were facing the same aggressive propaganda campaign and intimidating military deployments that had preceded the Crimean land grab. This is the largest American troop deployment in Europe since the end of the Cold War. He has reversed another Obama era policy by providing Ukraine with desperately needed defense weapons.

Trump ruffled feathers from one end of Europe to the other by insisting that the NATO alliance be strengthened by the increased contributions of its members. A stronger NATO means a weaker and less influential Russia, so his efforts must have been considered a direct challenge to Putin. At home in the United States, after years of spending cuts to the defense budget, Trump has increased spending to modernize the American military forces to deter potential foreign enemies including Russia.

Trump has also allowed the United States to become energy independent for the first time since the 1960s, encouraging Europeans to do the same. This policy has seriously limited the ability of Putin to use cash to prop up his domestic support, and there are solid indications that his support at home is slipping. If opponents of Trump hated Putin as much as they claim to, they would be ardent supporters of the Keystone Pipeline.

It is certainly true that Trump, both as candidate and president, has made statements about Russia and to Russia that he should not have made, such as inviting them to find more of the “private” emails of Clinton. However, in the two years that he has been president, Trump has taught the Russians a lesson that his supporters have known for years and that Clinton had learned far too late. It is foolish to take what Trump says literally, but it is dangerous not to take his actions seriously. 

Edward Lynch is chair of political science at Hollins University. He served in the White House Office of Public Liaison during the Reagan administration.